The first day of the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s Meth Summit was winding down when Ebony Tiger, a 17-year-old Yankton Sioux Tribe girl took the microphone to speak. Her testimony on growing up in a house dominated by a meth addicted mother was riveting – and heartbreaking.
Held March 24 and 25 at the Ft. Randall Hotel and Casino near Lake Andes, South Dakota, the summit, hosted jointly by the tribe and the North American Inter-Tribal Task Force, began with perfunctory presentations on investigative and judicial procedure by representatives from FBI and U.S. Attorney field offices in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Tiger, from nearby Wagner, said: “I am here to tell you how methamphetamines have affected my life. My mother is an addict, and has been for most of my life. I’ve lived with demons on my back for so long …” Shaken, the teenager continued, “It’s not easy living in the shadow of my mother’s addiction … it takes a toll on my life … at one point, I became so depressed … I didn’t have the motivation to do anything…
“Every day was like living in a prison. I was left in the care of people I did not know … I never had a home … I never felt the love I saw being given to other children. Many bad incidents occurred between me and my mother because her addiction got the best of her. In 2014, one of these incidents ended very badly …”
Soon after that incident, Tiger met Jodi Zephier in her capacity as Unit Director for the local Marty Boy’s and Girl’s Club. Zephier, also current Vice Chairman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, was well aware of the exploding meth problem among her tribe’s young adult and youth population. She founded an organization in November of 2014 called Native American Youth Standing Strong (NAYSS), dedicated to providing solutions and alternatives for the tribe’s most deeply meth-affected youth.
The morning of the second day of the summit, Zephier gathered several of NAYSS’s youth members to discuss meth’s devastation of their communities. The seven teenagers, five girls and two boys, all said that Ebony Tiger’s story was one they could all relate to.
One young woman, now vibrant and happy, said she was five years old when she was first in the presence of meth. “My mom and my dad would do it. I was seven when me and my sisters and brothers got taken away. Our house was busted – somebody snitched – we got taken away – and my mom went to prison.” Her story ends well. “Right now, my mom and my dad are 12 years clean,” she said with a smile. “But there’s still others in my family using, that’s why I joined this group.
Other NAYSS members have not been as fortunate. Zephier said she started NAYSS because there simply wasn’t anything else. “Boys and Girls Clubs nationally had a program called Meth Smarts, but for some reason it got discontinued. The following school year, at least half a dozen kids of various ages came to me and shared things with me – and it all had to do with meth.
“Things like ‘their lights got turned off,’ or ‘our parents sold all our EBT and we don’t have any food,’ ‘I was supposed to get basketball shoes, but my parents used the money for meth,’ those kinds of things,” she said.
The tribal vice-chairman believes that in the sad hierarchy of reservation pathologies, meth addiction replaced alcoholism as the number one enemy. Another young NAYSS member, quiet and thoughtful, described her addiction up until two months ago. “I could never sleep. I was always fidgeting. When I was coming off of it I couldn’t smell anything and I couldn’t eat – I was on it for two months … the withdrawals were terrible.”
Asked what percentage of their tribe’s members are affected by meth addiction the youth group members all agreed: “at least 90 percent.” Zephier said, “Everyone’s affected; everyone has a relative or a friend that’s meth addicted – someone they love – it might even be a grandparent; it’s an epidemic on our reservation, it really is, it’s like a wave that’s hit us and it’s overwhelming us – and no one wants to talk about it, and it’s growing in silence.”
“There’s dealers in every community,” an NAYSS member said. “We have three main communities and at least 15 dealers. Everyone knows who they are, even the tribal police chief, but we’re all related, and no one wants to tell on their own families.”
Among the most harrowing statistics revealed at the summit was the number 280. That’s the number of houses the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s SWA housing authority says it has had to vacate and subject to a thorough chemical wash designed to remove the lethally toxic residues built up into the wall, ceilings, floors and duct-work of houses where meth has been in regular use. Very often, a house has been vacated and cleaned several times.
During her presentation to start Friday’s afternoon session, North American Inter-Tribal Drug Task Force founding member Kelly King, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, made a passionate plea. “Most importantly, our focus should be to rescue, defend, shelter and support our children … all drug endangered children are at risk. What we are seeing with children exposed to meth is damage to their genetic code.” King explained that the damage is trans-generational. “The damage to that child will show up in her grandchildren’s genes”
Citing a host of congenital developmental issues, King, a drug-endangered child and ICWA specialist, said: “These children have no choice in what is going on in their parents lives. A lot of them will not survive. These chemicals are so damaging to them that even if they do survive they face lives of severe physical pain and multiple surgeries undertaken to repair the problems caused by these drugs.
“The life of a drug endangered child is a life of chaos. Natural bonding and attachment patterns are severely disrupted. There are no boundaries or limits; they’re exposed to pornography; sexual and physical abuse …” King went on to recite a litany of social and criminal justice issues that await the drug endangered child as he or she goes through life.
Concluding, King pleaded with those in attendance: “The enemy is in our camp. We must take care of this! We’re the only ones who can!” Visibly shaken, nearly everyone in attendance gave King a powerful affirmation for speaking what they felt was an unvarnished truth. Several present asked how they could help.
James Iron Shell, Director of the North American Inter-Tribal Task Force, likened these “Methamphetamine Awareness Summits” to congressional field hearings. “These are just the opening forays. The road is a long and hard one. Right now we’re gathering information on the enemy.”
The March summit at Ft. Randall Casino was the third of its kind, following a January 14 summit held at the Wapka Sica Building in Ft. Pierre, South Dakota, and one held February 25 and 26 at the Spirit Lake Casino & Resort, Fort Totten, North Dakota. The February summit was sponsored and hosted by the Spirit Lake Tribal Council and tribal Chairwoman Myra Pearson.